When Alexander Pope was just 23 years old he published his first independent work, called An Essay on Criticism, of which "Sound and Sense" is a small part. (And by the way, at thirty he was famous and rich. Nice.) He actually wrote it between two and four years earlier. Pope sometimes bragged that he wrote it before he was 20, but he may have been blowing smoke. Whatever the exact time of writing, we do know he revised it throughout his life.
We suppose he had reason to be a bit fat-headed, though. The first half of the eighteenth century used to be called The Age of Pope (now scholars call it the Augustan Age or the Neoclassical Age, but it still gives us a sense that Pope is pretty big-time). And "Sound and Sense" is one of his most famous poems. It marks the beginning of Pope's lifelong pursuit of making fun of bad poets. Of course, he took a lot of flak as well, including accusations of plagiarism and even insults about his appearance (he was under five feet and had a hunchback).
Samuel Johnson, a famous literary critic back in the 1700s, wrote in "The Life of Pope," "If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?" Many felt the same way, believing that none could equal Pope in his mastery of the heroic couplet. The heroic couplet is a deceptively simple poetic form, but it's really difficult to do without becoming tedious and repetitive. In "Sound and Sense," you can see what all of the fuss is about.
You can think of this poem as a sort of crash course in critical judgment (that is, being able to tell if a poem is good or not). This poem tells us (and shows us) that the meaning of a poem and the way it is said need to work together. Be satisfied knowing that "Sound and Sense" teaches you the key to reading other poems – which will earn you major brownie points with your English teacher.
Pope is also an amazing poet – one of the best English poets of all time. (Yep, some even say he's better than Shakespeare.) There are a heap of famous sayings that you can find in his writings. Need an example? How about this:
"A little learning is a dangerous thing."
"To err is human, to forgive, divine."
"For fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
All Pope. Well, mostly Pope. He gets the credit because he brought together many old sources that included these sayings. Getting to know Pope will feel like getting to know a distant family member; many of his lines will look at least a little familiar.
A great, scholarly site where you can find general biographical information about Pope and his historical context, as well as a list of his works.
This site includes biographical information, the full text of some of Pope's works, and links to a bunch of essays that can provide more context for approaching this and other Pope poems.
Article with great historical context comparing Pope's rivalries to modern hip-hop.
Listen to a reading of "Sound and Sense," plus the text of the poem, in case you want to read along.
Portrait of Pope painted by Thomas Hudson, held in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
"Sound and Sense" in Prose
Pope wrote in a letter to Cromwell in 1710 what looks to us like a prose version of his poem: "It is not enough that nothing offends the Ear…" Read the complete version here on page 59.
An Essay on Criticism
Read the complete poem, An Essay on Criticism, of which "Sound and Sense" is only a small part, as well as other works by Pope.
"The Life of Pope" by Samuel Johnson
This is from a famous critical work in the eighteenth century entitled Lives of the Poets written by the superstar critic Samuel Johnson. There is an abridged (that is, shorter) version of the Pope section on this site as well.
The Complete Critical Guide to Alexander Pope
This guide to Pope by Paul Baines includes easily accessible information about An Essay on Criticism and many other poems.
Alexander Pope: The Genius of Sense
David B. Morris explores the commitment of the poem to the practice of literary criticism.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
OK, so the movie is actually quoting another poem by Pope called "Eloisa to Abelard." But, we dug the movie and how it showcases Pope's lyrical couplets.